Football/Soccer

NI boss Baraclough upbeat ahead of World Cup qualifer in Italy

Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough.

AN Accrington Stanley striker and Derry City's goalkeeper are the eye-catching additions to the Northern Ireland squad aiming to record a shock result away to Italy in the opening World Cup qualifier.

Dion Charles is added to Ian Baraclough's attacking options while the Candystripes' Nathan Gartside is in as cover due to long-term injuries for Michael McGovern and Trevor Carson.

Baraclough is upbeat but realistic about the daunting challenge of taking on Roberto Mancini's highly-rated Azzurri in Parma next Thursday:

"We're under no illusions that we'll go there and not have a tough night. But, turning that around, it's exciting to go and play against teams like this with the individuals that they've got. I think it's a good time for us to go there and pit our wits against them."

Indeed he expressed the hope that the men in green might bring back at least a point to Belfast before the home friendly against the USA on Sunday March 28 then a home qualifier with Bulgaria on Wednesday March 31:

"You meet the challenge head on. You've got to play them at some stage so rather than meeting them mid-campaign when they've got up a head of steam, we may just catch them cold. For us to go an empty stadium, Parma, and play there, hopefully gives us an extra chance.

"We've got to be on top of our game, we're under no illusions about that. We've got to be playing to our max and hopefully Italy are a bit rusty.

"I've looked at previous campaigns Italy have played in and barring last year's European Championships where they got a 10 out of 10, they've always maybe slipped a couple of points against teams they are expected to beat. I'm hoping we're that team this time around."

Baraclough knows the 25-year-old Charles from his U21 days and he's pushed himself into the senior reckoning with his scoring exploits for Stanley this season:

"It shows that I'm looking outside the box. It shows if players are playing regularly for their club and they are in form and performing, they will get noticed…

"I think now is the right time to bring him in. No one is a shoo-in for this squad and the players need to realise that.

"The more players who are performing at certain levels, they will get noticed and get their chance. It's certainly not a closed shop.

"I know he's excited about his call-up and he'll bring that enthusiasm to the group. He knows he's not guaranteed to come in and play games but he'll enhance what we've got and up the level of everybody. They'll know that he's scored 17 goals so they'll have to be on top of their game."

He's also confident that 23-year-old Gartside and Conor Hazard of Celtic will be good back-up options for first choice goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell:

"They're young in age and in experience but I've seen them all play and all step up when they've needed to. I've worked with all three of them and I think it bodes well for Northern Ireland goalkeeping going forward over the next few years.

"It may be unexpected for Nathan – but I wouldn't have brought him into the squad if I didn't think he could deal with it. He's got the attributes and game to kick on from Derry at some stage."

Striker Liam Boyce is a doubt as his wife is due to give birth to their second child, while winger Jordan Jones is out injured.

Baraclough has been able to recall versatile midfielder Corry Evans after injury and is optimistic that another such player, Paddy McNair, will be available after a concern over his knee.

The aim is to make a strong start to the campaign to reach Qatar 2022, with Baraclough concluding:

"I've spoken to the lads regularly since November and there's a real hunger, desire, and excitement – we're playing against teams we haven't come up against of late, so there's a freshness there.

"Everyone wants to get to the World Cup. It's the pinnacle, isn't it? We've not done it since 1986, so we want to be the next group of people that the nation is talking about for years to come."

Northern Ireland squad (v Italy (WCQ), USA (friendly), and Bulgaria (WCQ)):

Goalkeepers: Bailey Peacock-Farrell (Burnley), Conor Hazard (Celtic), Nathan Gartside (Derry City);

Defenders: Jonny Evans (Leicester City), Craig Cathcart (Watford), Stuart Dallas (Leeds United), Shane Ferguson (Millwall), Conor McLaughlin (Sunderland), Jamal Lewis (Newcastle United), Daniel Ballard (Blackpool - on loan from Arsenal), Ciaron Brown (Cardiff City);

Midfielders: Steven Davis (Rangers), Corry Evans (Blackburn Rovers), Paddy McNair (Middlesbrough), George Saville (Middlesbrough), Michael Smith (Heart of Midlothian), Matthew Kennedy (Aberdeen), Jordan Thompson (Stoke City), Niall McGinn (Aberdeen), Alistair McCann (St Johnstone);

Strikers: Kyle Lafferty (Kilmarnock), Josh Magennis (Hull City), Conor Washington (Charlton Athletic), Liam Boyce (Heart of Midlothian), Gavin Whyte (Hull City - on loan from Cardiff City), Dion Charles (Accrington Stanley).

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Football/Soccer